Bill Keller’s Best Frenemy

“Google is one of those companies that we generally refer to as a frenemy,” said New York Times executive editor Bill Keller at his semi-annual newsroom question-and-answer session, informally called Throw Stuff at Bill.

Google has been a popular whipping boy these days. Last month, Wall Street Journal managing editor Robert Thomson told The Australian that aggregator sites like Google act like “parasites or tech tapeworms.” The argument goes like this: Google draws revenue and sells ads against content that is created by others but without sharing the wealth with those news outfits.

But Mr. Keller argued that Google—which he described as a powerful and self-interested company, but still an “ally” of the paper—isn’t precisely a parasite.

“I think there’re a lot of places you can level that allegation at,” he said. “Google isn’t particularly one of them. Google News generally runs a headline, maybe a first line of a story from The Times and a link. On balance, they’re driving a lot of traffic to us. I don’t think most of what Google does in that regard could be described as parasitism or piracy.”

Though, admittedly, The Times has a lot invested in traffic. The Times is still about six weeks away from choosing a pay model for its Web site—either a “meter system” or a mini-donation system from readers à la NPR—and in both cases the masthead and executives are concerned with how they can protect their high traffic numbers, which translates into digital advertising revenues (which, as we reported, Mr. Keller said is “a lot” of money and that he believes “substantially more” than what The Journal receives through its subscription-based pay model).

There are worse offenders than Google, said Mr. Keller, without naming any specifically.

He said that The Times will occasionally send out warning letters to the really bad offenders, but that after a while, you hit a wall sending out dozens of lawyers to go out and “beat up on every little blogger.”

The solution? He said that the Times is looking at a “carrot approach,” in which, along with the collaboration with Google, The Times would embed ads in its copy, and those ads would stay with the copy wherever it is reproduced.


Bill Keller’s Best Frenemy